Asking someone for help or a favor can be intimidating. We may want to avoid troubling them or even be afraid of offending them. But sometimes, the need for assistance outweighs any hesitancy, and we simply must ask. So is it correct to ask if someone can please do something?
It is correct to say “Can you please” when asking for someone’s help. We generally accept “Can you please” as the standard way of asking for assistance, particularly in more casual settings. For example, you might say, “Can you please open the door for me? I don’t have a free hand.” This is a perfectly polite question.
While “Can you please” is arguably the most common way to begin a request for help, it isn’t the only way. So let’s have a closer look at the meaning of this phrase, how you might use it, and some alternative phrases you may want to consider.
What Does “Can You Please” Mean?
Saying “Can you please” means asking someone to do something. While “can” technically asks if the person has the ability to complete the task, the addition of “please” makes it clear that you are making a request.
“Can” is a modal helping verb, also known as a modal auxiliary verb, that means “to be able to” (source). For example, “He can jump really high.” We also use it to indicate that something is possible or permissible “I can come to the party.” Consider the following requests:
- Can you change that lightbulb?
- Can you drive me to the store?
The first question technically asks whether the person has the know-how and skills to perform the task. On a basic level, the second question asks whether the person has access to a vehicle and the ability to operate it.
Now let’s look at the same sentences with the addition of the word “please.”
- Can you please change that lightbulb?
- Can you please drive me to the store?
Notice how adding the word “please” clarifies that these are polite requests, not merely queries into a person’s capability. Of course, most English speakers would likely understand that the questions in the first example were also requests. But the word “please” makes it unquestionable. It also adds an element of courtesy.
How Do You Use “Can You Please”?
You can use “Can you please” any time you wish to ask someone for information, assistance, or another request. “Can you please” is appropriate to use in written and spoken communication in any setting.
We use “Can you please” to politely ask for help.
- Can you please pass me the salt?
- Can you please hold this ladder for me?
We also use this phrase to ask for help with information.
- Can you please give me your opinion?
- Can you please direct me to the nearest gas station?
However, there is no limit to the number of requests you can make using the phrase “Can you please.”
- Can you please keep this door closed?
- Can you please watch your language?
Using “Can You Please” in a Full Sentence
“Can” is a helping verb that pairs with another verb to form a verb phrase. However, due to the way English speakers construct questions, it’s less obvious that the word “can” is acting as part of a phrase.
See how a question using “Can you please” looks when rearranged.
- Can you please stay for dinner?
- You can stay for dinner if you like.
Since asking someone if they can do something is a question of their ability, adding “please” is crucial. This word turns an ordinary question into a polite request.
- Can you mend the fence? (Are you able to repair the fence?)
- Can you please mend the fence? (I know you’re able, so I’m asking you.)
You can place the word “please” in a few different places in the sentence, but only a few sound natural.
- Correct: Can you please mow the lawn?
- Correct: Can you mow the lawn, please?
- Correct, but less natural: Please can you mow the lawn?
- Incorrect: Can you mow, please, the lawn?
How Do You Answer “Can You Please”?
If someone asks, “Can you please” do something, it’s safe to assume they need help. You may answer their question with a simple “Yes” or “No.” You may also find yourself needing to respond with a “Maybe” or “I’m not sure” (source).
Here are a few different ways to express those responses.
|Yes||Yes, I can.Sure thing!Of course.Definitely.You bet!|
|No||No, I can’t.I’m afraid not.Not this time.Unfortunately, I’m unable.I’m sorry, but I can’t.|
|Unsure||I’m not sure.I’m afraid I don’t know.I can’t right now, but maybe later.|
There’s always one in every crowd who’s quick to revert back to a more limited and outdated definition of the word “can.” You might find yourself having an exchange like this one.
Person A: Can you please hand me the remote?
Person B: Yes, I can. [does nothing]
Person A: I thought you said you would hand me the remote.
Person B: You asked if I could hand you the remote. I am physically capable of handing you the remote, but I’m not going to.
While it’s true that “can” originally referred only to one’s ability to do something, its definition has evolved over the centuries. Therefore, it is absolutely correct to use the word “can” when asking someone if they “will” do something.
When Can You Use “Can You Please”?
You may use “Can you please” in any setting to request something from someone. “Can you please” is acceptable for both spoken and written communication. We use it as the preferred way to politely ask someone to do something.
Here are a few examples.
- Can you please shut the door?
- Can you please tell me how to get to the train station?
- Can you please be more considerate next time?
When Not to Use “Can You Please”
Since “Can you please” is correct and appropriate, you won’t find many situations where you shouldn’t use it. However, you may find that some other options sound more polite in formal contexts.
We typically avoid using “Can you please” in formal contexts. Instead, we prefer “Would you please” or “Do you mind.”
Here are a few other options:
|Can you please review my essay?||Would you mind reviewing my essay?|
|Can you please direct me to the office?||Could you please give me directions to the office?|
|Can you please say that again?||Would you please repeat the last sentence?|
What Can You Use Instead of “Can You Please”?
It’s important to note that “can” is not our only auxiliary verb to make a request. Much debate exists over the most accurate, polite, and straightforward word to use. Most of this debate centers around the words “can,” “could,” “will,” and “would.”
As mentioned, “can” measures one’s ability to complete a task. “Could” asks a question of possibility. Asking someone if they “will” do something is a question of willingness. “Would” is another word we use when making a request (source).
You can use these words interchangeably, and all are equally appropriate. However, their connotations are somewhat nuanced. Consider this request asked in four different ways.
|Can you please fix the doorbell?||Are you able to fix the doorbell?|
|Could you please fix the doorbell?||Is it possible for you to fix the doorbell?|
|Will you please fix the doorbell?||Are you going to fix the doorbell?|
|Would you please fix the doorbell?||Might you consider fixing the doorbell?|
There are also several other ways of making a request. You should consider these options before resorting to the standard “Can you please.”
- Would you please
- Do you mind
- Would it be possible
- I would appreciate it if
- Could I ask you to
- May I trouble you to
- Is there anyone who could
We use imperative clauses to give instructions, issue commands, or make requests. For example, you use an imperative clause when you tell your dog to sit or ask Alexa to add some things to your shopping list (source).
Here are some examples of imperative clauses we use daily.
- Sit down.
- Have a great day!
- Be careful.
We also often see imperative clauses paired with the words “let” and “do,” though these are more prominent in British English than American English.
- Let us begin.
- Let’s open our textbooks.
- Do help yourself to tea.
- Please do sit down.
Imperative clauses can also be negative. We give negative directions by adding the word “not.”
- Let’s not be late.
- Do not walk through the grass.
- Don’t track mud into the house.
- Let’s not mention anything about the accident.
Using good manners is important, particularly in formal and business settings. For more examples of how to make polite requests, you might enjoy reading Is It Correct to Say “Please Note”? and Is It Correct to Say “Please Find Below”?
In summary, you can never go wrong by beginning a request with “Can you please.” Of course, you could use other options, but this one is widely accepted and very neutral. So, carry on using it in your daily written and spoken communication. Can you please let us know how it goes?